Gabriela Mistral – The Unlikely Poet Who Won a Nobel Prize

Thinking of poetry in Chile, the first that comes to mind is Pablo Neruda. But there was another important poet before him – and she was a woman. Enter Gabriela Mistral, who overcame many, many obstacles to become a famous writer, eventually earning the Nobel Prize in Literature, the first Latin American to ever do so.

But before she became Gabriela Mistral, she was Lucila Godoy Alcayaga, a girl of Basque and Indigenous heritage born on April 7, 1889 in the city of Vicuña in northern Chile. Before Lucila turned three, her father, a teacher with the heart of a traveling poet, left the family for good and his abandoned wife moved herself and her two daughters to the Andean village of Montegrande. You can see the family’s home below.

There she found work as a seamstress and the older sister, Emelina Molina, was employed as a teacher’s aide in the same school that Lucila soon attended. But despite their hard work, their life remained a humble one. As their money was running out, Lucila had to be taken out of school when she was only twelve, but she did not give up learning and with her sister by her side, she was able to feed her thirst for knowledge. By the time she was 15 she even got a position as a teacher’s aide in the seaside town of Compañia Baja and soon she taught in the near La Serena school as well. Around the same time she published her first poems in the local newspaper, using different pseudonyms such as Alguien, Soledad and Alma.

In 1906, when she was 17, she met her first love, a railway worker named Romelio Ureta. Only three years later the young love ended abruptly, as Romelio took his own life. This had a huge impact on her life, turning her to poetry even more and melancholy and the feeling of loss should become recurring themes in her work. It was then that Gabriela Mistral was born – a name chosen in remembrance of the archangel Gabriel and the warm Mistral wind of the Mediterranean. Or maybe it was a combination of the names of two of her favourite poets, Gabriele d’Annunzio and Frédéric Mistral.

She was determined to pursue a higher education, but was turned down from attending the Normal School without explanation. Later she found out that it was her writing that had blocked that path, Gabriela’s advocacy for universal access to education did not agree with the conservative views of the school’s chaplain. Undeterred, she decided to become an educator instead. Her task was made easier by the significant lack of teachers in the country. With the help of her sister’s contacts she got hired quickly and climbed the ladder utilizing her reputation as a published author and being willing to move wherever she was needed. By 1911 she was teaching several schools at primary level and worked as an inspector as well, often in remote areas. One year later she was hired to teach at a high school in Los Andes, near the capital of Santiago, where she would stay for six years. It was there that she wrote her “Sonetos de la Muerte,” her Sonnets of Death, in memory of her lost love, processing her grief. These Sonnets were what brought Gabriela to the attention of the wider masses when they won her the prestigious National Flower Award in 1914, aged 25.

When her stay in Los Andes ended, she moved on to a high school in Punta Arenas and then to Temuco in 1920, where she met and taught the young Pablo Neruda. The next year she was elected the director of Santiago’s newest and most prestigious girls’ school, so she moved back to the capital. Not everyone agreed with her nomination though and to escape the controversy, she accepted a job offer in Mexico only one year later to work with the Mexican Minister of Education to reform the national education system.

All the while she had been publishing her work and had acquired a considerable reputation as a journalist and public speaker. In 1922 she brought out her first book, “Desolación.” And she didn’t just publish it anywhere, she did so in New York! She was just getting started though. The next year she finished another text, “Lecturas para Mujeres,” Lectures for Women, celebrating Latin American culture. Her second book came out the year after; it was a children’s book of stories and lullabies, called “Ternura,” Tenderness. This one was published in Madrid, Spain! For she had left Mexico for Washington and then New York to tour Europe.

While she was a brilliant writer, she was not very good at taking care of herself; housework wasn’t really her thing and neither were finances, she didn’t like to cook and above all, she couldn’t stand being alone. Interestingly she still never married but preferred to live with women, all of them highly intelligent as herself and accomplished in their fields. One of them was Palma Guillén, a Mexican diplomat and educator, whom she met in 1922 during her time in Mexico. The two women should stay together for more than 15 years.

After a year of travelling she returned home to Chile in 1925 and retired from her teacher’s life at 36 years old. And not a moment too soon, for a law had just been passed that required teachers to have finished training at university. She had however been awarded the title of Spanish Professor by the University of Chile two years prior, although she had not had any form of formal education past the age of twelve. This shows what a remarkably intelligent woman she was and how determined to fill her head with all the knowledge she was denied by the system. This secured her a pension for life.

When she was invited to represent Latin America in the newly formed Institute for Intellectual Cooperation of the League of Nations, she moved to Marseilles, France with Palma and the couple adopted adopted the infant son of Gabriela’s half brother after his mother had died. Little Juan Miguel was physically disabled, which is why his father could not take care of him, but Gabriela did not care, she loved the boy as if he was her own. She supported their small family first with her journalism and then by giving lectures at universities in the US as well as Latin America. She also took up consular work, mainly in Italy and France but also in Spain, Guatemala and Brazil among others. In 1935, she was named consul for life. While working at the consulate in Madrid she once again met Pablo Neruda and was amongst the first to discover her fellow writer’s talent and originality.

All the while she kept writing and publishing her work in the Spanish-speaking world, with the help of her confidantes, the presidents of Colombia and Chile, as well as the First Lady of the US, Eleanor Roosevelt. And finally in 1938 she returned to Latin America, albeit not her home country, but Uruguay and Argentina. Her second major volume of poetry, “Tala,” was published in Buenos Aires that same year, with the proceeds going towards children orphaned by the Spanish Civil War. The book itself once more celebrated Latin American culture and heritage, but also the traditions of Mediterranean Europe – a fusion of different cultures, reflecting Gabriela’s own identity as both, European Basque and Native South American.

While they were living in Brazil, 17-year-old Juan Miguel took his own life in 1943. Gabriela was grief-stricken for she felt like she had lost a son and she blamed herself. Just one year before, her close friends, the Austrian couple Lotte and Stefan Zweig, writers who had taken residence in the city of Petrópolis like her, had chosen to end their lives as well. Furthermore her mother and sister had died not too long ago. All those wounds had not yet healed and now they were torn open once more. In 1946, Palma married a man, although she did continue to be Gabriela’s secretary and to support her emotionally. Gabriela, unable to move on, stayed in Brazil. And she remained there until two years later, when word arrived that she had won the Nobel Prize in Literature, the first Latin American to ever do so, and only the fifth woman. Just as bad things seem to only come in packs in her life, so did the good. In that same year her path crossed with that of Doris Dana, a beautiful and bright young woman from New York. Doris admired the poet, who was 31 years her senior, and although Gabriela did not remember their first meeting, Doris decided to write to her. A correspondence, and eventually a friendship, ensued.

Having found herself again, she once more felt restless. And so she packed her bags and moved to San Francisco, a delegate of the United Nations and soon also a founding member of UNICEF. She then took off to Los Angeles and later took up residence in Santa Barbara, California. In 1948, Gabriela finally invited Doris to visit her, after two years of regular correspondence. Soon the friendship turned romantic and Doris, then 28, decided to stay with the poet who was 59 at the time. Soon the two women travelled together to Mexico, where Gabriela was awarded a plot of land in Veracruz to build a house on (which the couple did.)

Oh, she also snatched a doctor honoris causa from Mills College in Oakland, California in 1947 and the Chilean National Literature Prize in 1951.

Although their relationship was very happy, Doris frequently had to return to her family in New York and every time she left, Gabriela feared that she would never return. But each and every time she did. Together they left Mexico around 1950 and spent the next two years in Italy, where they met Palma again. Doris and her became fast friends and she was only too happy to have a little help in handling Gabriela’s affairs. In 1953 the poet’s health began to decline and she realized she would not be able to travel anymore; after all she was 64 years old already. She wanted to spend the rest of her life with Doris but knew that her love could never call any other place than New York her home. So they settled on a compromise.

That same year, Gabriela set out for one last triumphant visit to her home country, with Doris accompanying her of course, and she was welcomed enthusiastically. And then the couple returned to their new home. Because Gabriela hated New York City, they settled in Roslyn Harbor, not too far away. There she continued to represent Chile in the General Assembly of the United Nations and, of course, to write. One year later her final book, “Lagar,” Winepress, was published and in it were all the grief over her son, the tension of World War II and more. It was the last one to be published in her lifetime. In early 1957, Gabriela was admitted to Hempstead Hospital in New York, where she died only a few days later on January 10, aged 67. Doris had not left her side.

Below a bonus picture of the two lovebirds because they were so darn cute: 

Nine days later Gabriela’s body was transferred back to her hometown of Montegrande, just as she had wished. Hundreds of thousands Chileans attended her funeral and paid their respects and the country declared three days of national mourning in her honor. At the same time her “Messages describing Chile“ were published posthumously. According to Gabriela’s testament the proceeds of her book sales in South America were to be used to help the impoverished children of Montegrande, one of which she had been too, so long ago. The proceeds from the sales in the rest of the world were supposed to go towards Doris Dana and Palma Guillén, who decided to give their parts to Chilean children in need as well. At first it looked like this wish could not be carried out as there was a law against inheriting profits yet to be made, but the decree was repealed and so her final wish came true. Doris was also the one holding all her literary legacy and she is the one who translated a selection of her poems into English and managed their publication.

Gabriela Mistral’s legacy can be found in many names all over the country. Within months of her death, a museum was opened in her birthtown of Vicuña. In 1977 an order for teaching and culture was named after her and in 1981 a private university was founded that bears her name. Once she had mentioned, jokingly I presume, that she would love the Hill of Montegrande to be named after her one day and indeed, on the day that would have been her 102nd birthday, on April 7, 1991, the street Fraile Hill was renamed Gabriela Mistral. Practically every major city in Chile has at least one street or plaza named after her. She certainly has left her mark and will not be forgotten.

image credits:

1: “House of Gabriela Mistral, Montegrande, Valle del Elqui, Coquimbo Region, Norte Chico” – © Educarchile – Link
2: “Manuscript Los Sonetos de la Muerte” – © Educarchile – Link
3: “Gabriela Mistral,” 1923 (© Archivo General Histórico del Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores) – Link
4: Palma Guillén and Gabriela Mistral, undated – Link
5: “Gabriela Mistral (1889 – 1957)”  – © Educarchile – Link
6: “Gabriela Mistral and Doris Dana in the garden of their house in Long Island” – © Educarchile – Link
7: “Gabriela Mistral reading on her terrace” – © Educarchile – Link
8: “Gabriela Mistral and Doris Dana on the Beach” – © Educarchile – Link

Enheduanna – The World’s First Author

Did you know that the first author ever was a woman? Well, we can’t say for certain as for a long time all writing was anonymous. But the first person to ever put their name on their work was today’s heroine: Enheduanna, Sumerian High Priestess. As far as we can tell, her opus encompasses 42 temple hymns and a number of longer texts, representing the first human attempt to compose a systematic theology. Isn’t that amazing?!

Enheduanna’s story takes us way back in time, to the ancient city of Ur in 2300 BC. Given how little information we have about people from that time, even royalty, it is fascinating how much we know about her. So let’s get started!

She was the daughter of one of history’s earliest empire builders, Sargon the Great, king of Akkadia. And great was his conquest indeed: his reign extended from all of southern Mesopotamia to parts of Syria, Anatolia and western Iran. In the late 23rd to early 22nd century BC, he incorporated a number of Sumerian city states into his kingdom and this is where our knowledge of Enheduanna’s life begins. While the Akkadians and Sumerians were culturally not quite that dissimilar and worshipped the same gods, their languages still differed and tensions arose. So Sargon appointed his daughter High Priestess of the city of Ur. That way she could keep an eye on the population and exert Akkadian influence.

The position of High Priestess was a powerful one indeed as the temples were not only religious places but social and economical centres as well. And the Ziggurat of Ur was one of the most significant temples in the Mesopotamian valley – in the picture you can see the modern reconstruction behind the ruins of the original.

Enheduanna’s religious duties included caring for the statues of their gods, offering sacrifices (animals, but also jewellery and produce) and interpreting dreams and omens. She and her staff were also responsible for cataloguing astronomical movements, a scientific process, although it is unclear how exactly they did this. Furthermore she controlled quite a large plot of land, employing an array of people such as fishermen, farmers and shepherds. Her land brought in a good amount of money, so the temple also functioned as a bank – which was overseen by Enheduanna as well. On top of that she also had to maintain relationships with the other temples in the area, advocating for her deities but also for her father.

I’d like to get into her daily religious duties a bit more because her role and status were tightly bound to her position of High Priestess. You can see her performing those alongside her staff on the disc in the picture; Enheduanna is the one in the middle with the frilly dress.

As High Priestess she was known as the “Wife of Nanna,” the Akkadian moon god and served him as well as his divine wife Ningal and their daughter Inanna. And she seemed to have had a real soft spot for the latter, starting a whole cult revolving around her which eventually made Inanna one of the pantheon’s highest-ranking deities. The temple was adorned with statues of the gods which were bathed and dressed ritually every day by the priestesses, but not before they themselves had cleansed themselves thoroughly and brought their offerings. Once a year, Enheduanna took part in a ritual of sacred marriage, where she lay with a mortal representative of Nanna. Another theory is that Enheduanna represented Inanna, a goddess of love and fertility, in this rite. Whether it involved literal intercourse or not is unclear, but is is far from improbable – there are a few lines of poetry that strongly suggest a physical component to these rituals. Certain is that this union was intended as some sort of blessing, ensuring the land’s fertility and the temple’s prosperity.

Now that her background is laid out, let’s get to the interesting part: her poetry. Yes, I too am wondering where she found the time to write besides all her duties and responsibilities. And yes, it gets even more interesting than ritualistic sex.

I already said before that Enheduanna wrote a total of 42 temple hymns – for comparison, Shakespeare “only” wrote 37 plays, and her count does not even include her other texts! To be fair, it might be that other authors used her fame and put her name under their own manuscripts but analyzing the style, it is pretty likely that most if not all of them were written by Enheduanna herself. Her work is generally divided into these temple hymns and her other texts which are mainly poems to her favourite goddess Inanna. In the picture you can see that they carved their letters into clay (the depicted text is not by Enheduanna though, I couldn’t find a plate that was certainly hers.) The former were means of communication between the temples and were not only used for religious exchange but also as propaganda for King Sargon, meant to dissolve tensions between the two people of the kingdom. However these texts are so lyrical in nature that they are unlikely to be purely political in nature – and if they basically were political pamphlets, why should she have signed them with her name when this was unheard of?

Here is why: she was proud of her work! It was not that she felt immortalized in her poems, or at least she never mentioned if she did, but she was fascinated by the fact that she created something entirely new and she took pride in it.

This kind of self-reflection was also completely new to poetry and writing in general. It wasn’t until more than 700 years later that the likes of Homer and Sappho started on that path – just to put things into perspective. Before Enheduanna there was no clear distinction between emotional and physical experiences, between mortal and divine in writing; she was the first to write about her inner turmoils and thoughts, marking the beginning of the human understanding of self.

Now back to an episode of her life when she was basically evicted from her temple and replaced by a man called Lugalunne, who was either a priest as well or a foreign king. Anyways, Enheduanna was not amused and wrote one of her most dramatic poems, one of those addressed to Inanna:

truly for your gain / you drew me toward
 my holy quarters
 / I 
the High Priestess / 
Enheduanna /
 there I raised the ritual basket 
/ there I sang the shout of joy /
 but that man cast me among the dead / 
I am not allowed in my rooms 
/ gloom falls on the day
 / light turns leaden 
/ shadows close in 
/ dreaded southstorm cloaks the sun 
/ he wipes his spit-soaked hand 
/ on my honey-sweet mouth 
/ my beautiful image 
fades under dust
 / what is happening to me
 / O Suen [i.e. Inanna] 
/ what is this with Lugalanne?… / he gave me the ritual dagger of mutilation / he said / “it becomes you.”

The remarkable thing about this poem is that it was the first of its kind! Today we are used to emotions wrapped in words, but this was the first time that was ever done, more than 4000 years ago! And it’s poetic too! I’m not sure by the way if there truly was bodily mutilation involved, if it was a specific ritual or just another metaphor. Her exile however does not seem to have lasted very long as in the next part of her story she was already back home.

Another interesting part of her writing is the religious shift we are able to learn about from her diaries. As I already said, before her time the divine was one with the worldly, god was everything. This understanding however began to shift towards the belief that god is IN everything, a small but significant difference that implies that god transcends the worldly instead of being one with it. And Enheduanna did not like that notion, so she composed a poem (which is pretty long so a summary has to do): While Inanna was a relatively “young” goddess, she still stood for the old way, uniting the contradictions of life; the lover and the warrior, birth and death, growth and destruction. When the mountain Ebih defied her, she unleashed all her fury upon him, completely destroying her adversary.

What makes this story so fascinating is that Ebih is described as an almost utopian place with lambs and lions living in peace (bible, anyone?) and Inanna flat-out bulldozes it which Enheduanna is obviously more than okay with. Why is that? Because it is unnatural. Nature is not merciful an harmonious, there are contrasts, there is good and bad, light and dark. Eternal peace does not fit into this world view and Enheduanna has Inanna annihilate it entirely.

Obviously that opinion didn’t stick and was eventually replaced by a more distinctive view on religion and the gods – although Inanna did stick around for around 2000 years still, donning the names of Ishtar and Cybele among others. Ironically it was Enheduanna who lay the groundwork for this development. Had she not began her journey of self-awareness people might not have differentiated between divine and worldly for another 1000 years or so and the old gods would have survived a little longer. On the other hand, is there nothing divine in creating something that never was before? And in this aspect maybe Enheduanna was not all wrong.

Do you want to read all of her poems now? Because I did!

Unfortunately there is no complete collection on the internet, but you can find a selection of her temple hymns here (click) and there is one of her Inanna poems here (click.)
You can also hear one of her texts in the original Sumerian here (click and scroll down to the bottom.)

image credits:

Ruins: Ruins in the Town of Ur, Southern Iraq by M. Lubinski in Wikimedia Commons – Link
Disc: Penn Museum, British Museum/University Museum Expedition to Ur, Iraq, 1926 (B16665)
Clay Tablets: CDLI – Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative, photo by Thomas Fish, 1982 (P212927)